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Collateral Damage: Stephen Schwartz, Alan Menken, Lin-Manuel Miranda Campaign Against Sheet Music Piracy

By Jon Sobel j.sobel@classicalite.com on Apr 23, 2014 01:50 AM EDT

Ever stop to think about how musical theater songwriters make a living?

Not the way other songwriters do, from CD sales or iTunes downloads, or from touring and selling t-shirts. And not from getting their songs placed in car commercials.

Two main things keeps them going. The first is productions of their shows. And the second is something so old-fashioned it hardly seems plausible:

Sheet music.

That's right, sheet music. The same stuff people used to buy a hundred years ago when they wanted to play the day's hit songs on their piano at home.

There's a big problem, though, with sheet music in the digital age: It's much too easy to steal. Illegal downloads of sheet music from unauthorized sources have been cutting seriously into Broadway composers' incomes.

So on April 21 the Dramatists Guild of America hosted the first Anti-Piracy Awareness Event. "Musical theater artists, we thrive on productions and we thrive on sheet music. That's our bread and butter," said Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights).

Composers spent time at the event actually writing emails to offending websites explaining the harm they were doing, trying to make a dent in the problem. And it's a big problem. Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Godspell) found "over 11,000" pieces of his music – sheet music files, that is – on just one site.

My own web search for "In the Heights sheet music" netted over 8,700 results, "Sondheim sheet music" more than 20,000.

Dramatists Guild Anti-Piracy Committee chair Craig Carnelia put it straight and to the point: "There are more songs being stolen than being sold…by doing this, they're taking from the very people they revere and damaging the business they hope to become a part of."

A decade ago it was the record labels panicking about illegal music downloads. Today it's theatrical composers, who are mostly pretty much on their own in this business. So they're asking fans give them a break, let them earn a living that will let them keep composing the shows that will keep people wanting their music.

Because, while it's nice work if you can get it, you can get it only if people don't steal it out from under you.

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Tagssheet music, sheet music piracy, Dramatists Guild, LIn-Manuel Miranda, Stephen Schwartz, Stephen Sondheim, Alan Menken